by Zach Morton

A new, more weather-resilient breed of fish recently illegally introduced to Lake Norman has some anglers excited while some wildlife officials fear the impact the hybrid fish could have on the ecosystem.

Wildlife officials believe the wiper fish, or “Buddy Bass,” was introduced into local waters a little more than a year ago when a fishing club illegally dumped them into Lake Norman. The fish are a hybrid of the white and striped bass and have broken stripe markings on its round body. Some wildlife officials believe they are more likely to survive the warm North Carolina summers.

But that’s not what has anglers excited.

“They’re fun to catch,” said Craig Price, owner of Fish on! Lake Norman. “They’re a good, hard-fighting fish.”

Fishing on Lake Norman is big business. It brings in countless tourists, major tournaments and millions in revenue each year. Having a new, healthy breed of fish would make sense to many who live off of fishing proceeds.

Price believes the wiper fish is a strong alternative to the declining striped bass population. He thinks they were most likely introduced for that reason.

More than 7,000 striped bass died in 2010 and several hundred more floated to the surface last year. Warmer surface temperatures trap oxygen in the cold, lower recesses of the lake, and the fish stay near the bottom with little access to food.

“Once fish are acclimated to a cold temperature, the sudden shock of going through warm and deoxygenated water can cause them to die after release,” Price said.

Wipers can handle warm waters better than striped bass and are more likely to thrive in the environment, said Brian McRae, fishery supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

But introducing a new species brings a new set of problems, such as the unknown consequences of how other fish will adapt to it.

It’s a misdemeanor in North Carolina to introduce a new fish into a freshwater body.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman cautions the public to think about the consequences of illegal introduction.

“It is important to make sure people know that not only is it illegal, but introducing fish to a new water body can completely alter the entire ecosystem of the lake and hamper its ability to generate a true, trophy fishery.”

Striped bass, one of the largest fish populations in Lake Norman, will now have to share its food source with the wipers, creating more competition for a limited resource.

“Hybrid striped bass consume many of the same forage species as other predators in Lake Norman. Therefore, they will be an additional competitor for an already limited forage base,” said McRae.

This isn’t the first illegal introduction of a new species for Lake Norman. River herring was dumped into the waters in the 1990s with the hope they would grow big and fat, becoming a fisherman’s dream. But the herring began eating some of the striped bass’ food, causing striped bass to not grow as fast, and could have played a role in the fish kills that began in 2004.

“If river herring were not in the reservoir, striped bass would less likely be inclined to inhabit the deep layer of the reservoir where they eventually become trapped and die,” Merryman said.

But despite the worry of wildlife experts, many anglers are excited at the idea of the new fish.

“I look forward to catching more (hybrids),” Price said.

Report: Lake Norman fish safe to eat

A study released last month found that fish in Lake Norman are safe to eat.

The Fish Tissue Sampling Project, conducted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services along with state wildlife officials, found low levels of carcinogens like mercury and polychlorinated byphenel and no arsenic in the six species of fish tested.

The results showed the fish are safe to eat and an advisory was unnecessary. A statewide consumption advisory is still in effect for large mouth bass.

Dave Caldwell, the environmental supervisor for the Water Quality Program, told the Lake Norman Marine Commission the findings were a big positive.

“We were pretty happy with the results,” Caldwell said last month. “The fish are safe to eat – that’s very good news.”

Normally the state conducts studies like this on its own, but Storm Water Services saw a need for another one, Caldwell said.

This is the first major study of Lake Norman fish since the 1990s.

“This is great news,” Marine Commission Chairman Ron Shoultz said. “It’s quite refreshing and I hope we can convince the powers that be that these studies will be a regular occurrence.”